Sunday 26 January 2020

Why Wallis Simpson hated Marilyn Monroe

John Steinbeck, JB Priestley, Roald Dahl and John Le Carré were just a few of the authors the British publisher and literary agent Charles Pick nurtured over his seven decades in the business.

Pick had many a tale to tell but when he died in 2000, aged 82, his memoir was unpublished. Now it has been given to the University of East Anglia, home of the famous Creative Writing centre.

It's a treasure trove of anecdotes, including the tale of Wallis Simpson's jealousy of Marilyn Monroe.

The stories recall a bygone age -- days when Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, could check in for her Pan Am flight with a bottle of Moet et Chandon and a dozen shucked oysters as a carry-on airline meal.

Pick accompanied John Steinbeck to his Nobel Prize dinner (noting that the author had "given up hard liquor and was just drinking beer" for the occasion) and drank vermouths with Graham Greene on his terrace in Antibes.

But he was equally at home in less glamorous surroundings -- one of his warmest memories was of visiting Catherine Cookson's house for lunch, where she fed him double helpings of home-cooked steak and kidney pie.

Pick began his career in 1933 as an office boy for the publisher Victor Gollancz and moved into sales. In 1935, he went into a Hampstead bookshop to try to sell them copies of a "marvellous new book" called Burmese Days by a young writer named George Orwell. The man behind the counter said he knew the author well -- it was Orwell himself, working as a sales assistant under his real name of Eric Blair.

From Gollancz, Pick moved to Michael Joseph and finally to Heinemann, where he rose to become chairman, retiring in 1984.

His innovations included book-signing events in stores -- he persuaded Noel Coward to sign copies of his book in 1954 and rivals soon followed his lead.

Pick's memoir is now available for the public to view at UEA.

Extracts from Charles Pick's memoir include:

Wallis Simpson

The Duchess of Windsor summoned Pick to Paris to discuss publication of her 1956 autobiography, The Heart Has Its Reasons.

He found her reclined on a chaise longue in her drawing room "with a large, round box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates within reach of her right hand.

"As she rose to greet me her opening remark was, 'Can you please tell me who Marilyn Monroe's publicity agent is?'

"I had to confess I had no idea but enquired as to why she wanted to know. 'Look,' she said, 'I have all the newspapers each day and I was generally on the front page. But now I see that Marilyn Monroe is on the front page. Well, somebody has pushed me off!'

"I could see I was in for a difficult time, but I explained that I wasn't in any way able to help her in displacing Marilyn Monroe in her favour."

The Duke of Windsor

Some years later, Pick saw the Duke disembarking from the Queen Mary at Cherbourg carrying a plastic bag full of dirty washing. "He looked such a sad, small figure and I thought how pathetic, that this once King of England should be taking his own laundry off the Queen Mary."

Roald Dahl

On another occasion aboard the Queen Mary, Pick met Dahl, who was travelling with his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, and two children. Dahl had insisted on travelling in a tourist class berth.

Pick wrote: "Inside, his two children were being sick, the nursemaid having been sick lay prostrate on a bunk, Patricia Neal was looking for a £2,000 diamond which she had lost and Roald Dahl was pacing up and down saying, 'I hope you don't find it, I never did like it'."

Karen Blixen

When the aristocratic author of Out of Africa flew to London to meet Pick in 1958, she complained of the "plastic" airline food and requested something more suitable for the return journey. Blixen said: "It's a long flight, Mr Pick, isn't it, to New York? What am I going to eat if they serve the thing I was offered yesterday? Will you please find me a bottle of champagne and some oysters?'"

With some difficulty, Pick secured a bottle of Moet et Chandon and a dozen oysters from the Connaught Hotel, presenting them at the Pan Am desk at Heathrow to be shucked on board.

Randolph Churchill

Churchill was chosen to write the official biography of his father, Winston, and was furious when Pick told him that the early chapters were disappointing.

"I received a letter from Randolph [saying] 'I work hard, I spent two years preparing this book, I started to write it and with great enthusiasm send you the first pages and all you reply is stinking fish'. This letter became quite famous at Heinemann and was known as the 'Stinking Fish Letter'."

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